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Symbol of Basque optimism, Guggenheim Museum opens in Basque city

October 18, 1997

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ With the words ``The Guggenheim Museum is inaugurated!″ and the flick of a master light switch, King Juan Carlos opened Spain’s new art showcase Saturday in the restive Basque city of Bilbao.

Rooftop sharpshooters kept close watch on the gala opening of the museum, whose prominence as a symbol of the Basque region’s optimism already has made it the target of a deadly attack by Basque separatists.

A choir singing sweetly in the Basque language greeted Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia when they entered the Guggenheim, the work of American architect Frank Gehry, all sweeping curves sheathed in titanium.

After addresses from representatives of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which provided the artwork, and the Basque regional government, which picked up the $100 million tab for construction, the king flipped the master switch, illuminating the 196-foot-high atrium and officially opening the museum.

Security was tight in Bilbao, 200 miles north of Madrid.

During the day, the museum doors were sealed, with only the royal family’s staff allowed to enter. By nightfall, sharpshooters were stationed on roofs and speedboats patrolled the riverbanks behind the museum.

Flowers marked the spot on the museum grounds where a policeman was shot and killed Monday as he questioned three men unloading flower arrangements from a van. Police later found machine guns and grenades hidden among the flower pots.

Two of the gunmen fled, including the killer. A third, Kepa Arronategui, was captured and subsequently confirmed membership in the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

ETA, whose initials stand for Basque Homeland and Liberty, has killed about 800 people since it started fighting a guerrilla war for Basque independence in 1968.

Basque’s regional president, Jose Antonio Ardanza, remembered slain policeman Jose Maria Aguirre at Saturday’s inauguration, calling him a hero for giving his life to foil an alleged ETA plot to sabotage the opening ceremony.

About 2,000 Basque artists and others marched on the other side of town earlier in the day, denouncing the museum.

``It is a symbol of cultural imperialism, not Basque pride,″ said Basque painter Morquilleas.

Another source of controversy over the museum has been the absence of Picasso’s ``Guernica,″ depicting the 1937 Nazi air raid on Guernica, a town 15 miles from Bilbao, during the Spanish Civil War.

Technicians said the masterpiece was too fragile to move from its present spot at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

The Guggenheim will display works by Eduardo Chillida, Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Paul Klee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer and other artists.

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